Cold climate, warm heart

Portrush may be grey and chilly but, thanks to an innovative restaurateur and that stag night, it's now hotter than July
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Portrush does not look like somewhere you can count on for a good dinner. Approached through a blanket of misty rain, it appears very unpromising indeed. On its outskirts you pass a series of holiday camps and rows of mobile homes surrounded by chain-link fencing (to keep the thieves out, or the punters in?).

Portrush does not look like somewhere you can count on for a good dinner. Approached through a blanket of misty rain, it appears very unpromising indeed. On its outskirts you pass a series of holiday camps and rows of mobile homes surrounded by chain-link fencing (to keep the thieves out, or the punters in?).

A large sign indicates Kelly's nightclub, which, a guide book assures us, is frequented by all Northern Ireland's grooviest youth. But quite frankly, on a rainy day in early January, it's rather hard to believe. The existence of students is indicated by a sign to the catering college, but nothing else suggests either youth or excess.

The town was recently elevated to cult status when the cast of ITV's hit comedy-drama Cold Feet decamped there for Adam's stag weekend. Adam (played by Ulster's only sex symbol, Jimmy Nesbitt) grew up in Portrush, and his face, tellingly, fell when informed where he was being taken for his last bachelor fling.

The ITV version of Portrush featured pubs full of friendly, laughing folk and a sunny shoreline under a clear sky. The dramatic Giant's Causeway, strange-shaped rocks rising out of the wild surf, even provided the setting for a furtive romantic episode.

As well as this beauty spot, Portrush can claim probably the best-known restaurant this side of Belfast ("the best food in Northern Ireland," we were assured by a local shopkeeper). But first you have to find it.

The impression of a dreary northern seaside town is enforced by the seemingly endless looping road system installed to prevent coaches coinciding on the narrow streets. Since the coach season is brief, one drives pointlessly on empty roads round and round the suburbs of a place scarcely big enough to have suburbs.

Eventually you come upon the harbour - less a harbour than a bend in the road with a car park - but the sea is thrashing about and the lifeboat can be seen lurching on its chain, waiting for the call. At this bend in the road is the Harbour Bar, a featureless, grey building from the outside, but inside, a snug little pub with an open fire and a homely restaurant attached, which was packed and looked very inviting on a Friday night.

Next door is a modern cube of a building, housing the famous Ramore restaurant and, right above it, a chic wine bar. Between the three establishments, they seem to cover the dining requirements of a large area. They are all owned by the same man, George McAlpin, himself a chef. He employs someone else to cook and the incumbent's been there a year, but has clearly researched his market thoroughly.

The wine bar looks out over the car park towards a construction site, but also commands a view of the grey, frothing sea. Everyone who has clients, colleagues or family to take to lunch evidently brings them here. The menu is imaginative, with a good fish selection, and a cheerful, lively atmosphere - though the prices ensure there are still no students in sight.

The restaurant downstairs is a more serious affair. (It used to be above the wine bar, but the owner swapped them round to give the wine bar more space.) Here there is no pretence that the harbour offers any kind of a view; instead the walls inside are hung with large, colour photographs of local beauty spots, slightly giving the effect of a travel agent's.

The interior is bright-white and chrome, with a split level: upstairs a comfortable banquette in dark blue with red and yellow cushions surrounds the tables. It's a cheering sight, and on a slow night all the diners can be seated up here and feel quite cosy. Which is just as well, since the chill is the kind that creeps into your bones and gives you a permanent hunch. Seated on the banquette I felt a blast of cold air up my back, which, as far as I could tell, came not from a draught but from inside the cushion I was leaning against.

The service was more uniformly warm and pitched exactly right: attentive without being over solicitous. The French maître d' had acquired an Ulster accent, which added somewhat bizarre local colour.

We chose seafood fettucine and crab-and-avocado salad with a sauce of red pepper and tomato (both starters £5.95). Proof that the Scottish chef trained in Sicily came in the pasta that tasted home-made, with a deliciously light, buttery sauce and unusually generous quantities of tiny squid, prawns and sweet little clams. The crab came in a strange, circular tower, with avocado diced and lettuce chopped, and topped with a blob of Thousand Island-type dressing. We picked at the best parts - the succulent crabmeat and fresh, light and smooth sauce - leaving the dressing high and dry.

For our main courses we both chose fish: my husband had salmon fillet with white-truffle hollandaise, and a salad of asparagus and mushroom on "balsamic" (£11.95). A suggestion of oriental sweetness pervaded the menu, with tempura and Thai-style this-and-that. But we suspected that balsamic vinegar might flow freely in several of the dishes, playing the sweet-and-sour role. I had a less risky, straightforward roast monkfish on a bed of spinach, with roast shallots and new potatoes.

By nine o'clock there were still only four tables of diners, but we were warming up. The puddings (all £4.75) looked rather queasy-making: strawberry crÿme brûlé; something with orange syrup and chocolate; something with white chocolate. I chose banoffi ice cream - diced bananas in a not very creamy ice - with toffee sauce poured round.

To come across a restaurant like the Ramore in such unprepossessing surroundings is a treat. The chef is certainly trying to create something out of the ordinary to excite palates dulled by the cold Northern Irish mist. We'd have preferred less of the exotic flavours, interesting shapes and contrasting ingredients, and more simplicity for a really successful dinner. Mind you, the cosmopolitan cast and crew of Cold Feet must have been thrilled to find it.

Ramore Restaurant and Wine Bar, The Harbour, Portrush, Co Antrim (028 7082 4313). Wine bar is open for Mon-Sat lunch 12.15-2pm and dinner 5-10pm, Sun lunch 12.30-3pm, dinner 5-9pm. Restaurant is open for Tue-Sat dinner 6.15-10.15pm. Visa, Switch and Mastercard accepted. Limited disabled access to wine bar only

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